Inside Ben Carson's small-dollar fundraising machine

GOP presidential candidate's gambit: Spend millions, attract unlikely donors

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Literature for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is arranged at a booth during the Iowa GOP's Growth and Opportunity Party at the Iowa state fair grounds in Des Moines, Iowa, October 2015.

Nati Harnik/AP

CONCORD, N.H. — George Anderson woke at 6:30 a.m., drove two-and-a-half hours south from his home in the White Mountains to New Hampshire’s granite-block statehouse, squeezed into a crowded corridor near the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office and proudly hoisted a “Ben Carson for President” sign.

But Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and surprise favorite in polls thus far, hadn’t just inspired Anderson to symbolic action on the November day when Carson filed paperwork to appear on the state’s primary ballot.

In addition to drawing Anderson’s allegiance, Carson also attracted his money. The 66-year-old Army veteran has given Carson’s campaign about $100 in several increments — the first donations he’s ever made to a politician, he said.

“I’m tired of politics and the politicians, and I felt Carson had all the things I was looking for,” Anderson said, adding he’ll continue sending Carson’s campaign money whenever possible. “He needs all the support he can get.”

Anderson typifies Carson’s reliance on first-time givers.

Indeed, three-fourths of Carson contributors who gave $200 or more to his campaign — 18,475 people — have not donated to any other federal political candidate since at least 2007, according to an analysis of campaign finance data by the Center for Responsive Politics that the Center for Public Integrity commissioned.

The overwhelming success of the campaign in attracting small donors is not due solely to the grassroots appeal of the mild-mannered giver of a now-famous speech at that 2013 National Prayer breakfast.

The success can also be credited to the Carson campaign’s expensive and ambitious fundraising strategy. The campaign has paid millions of dollars this year to telemarketers and fundraising firms to identify and cultivate the kinds of potential donors — like George Anderson — who are now largely bankrolling his campaign.

To boost a first-time candidate without a built-in constituency, the campaign needed to invest.

Building a supporter list “puts us on par with the campaigns with the big super PACs,” said Doug Watts, the Carson campaign’s communications director.

The strategy has paid off. The Carson campaign has now received more than a million contributions from roughly 570,000 people, Watts said. During the first nine months of 2015, the Carson campaign reported raising $31.4 million, more hard dollars than any other Republican candidate’s campaign, including those of other top-tier dwellers such as Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The campaign last week said it has raised $20 million so far this quarter.

The average contribution: a modest $50. Presidential campaigns aren’t required to identify campaign contributors who give them less than $200.

Carson’s poll numbers have slipped recently, but he still consistently ranks among the top three or four candidates in most surveys. And his fundraising success will likely keep him competitive for some time.

New donors

Carson’s campaign has easily attracted the largest number of “new” political donors among his Republican presidential competitors.

Trump’s campaign reported a higher percentage of such donors, but Trump is poised to largely self-finance his campaign and has only reported having a small fraction of Carson’s donor base.

Carson supporters are different because Carson “has a pre-political following, based on his fame in the evangelical world for his writing, for his books,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks money in politics. Many contributors say they first heard of Carson after a speech he delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Some have followed Carson for years, reading his books and long hoping he would run for president. When Carson in May officially declared his bid, his backers knew there was an existing fan base of “literally several hundred thousand people out there that loved Dr. Carson,” said Terry Giles, a Houston-based lawyer, businessman and longtime friend of Carson’s who was responsible for initially setting up the campaign.

What the fledgling and underfunded Carson campaign didn’t have was much hard, actionable information about them.

“We wished we did, but we didn’t,” Giles said. “But we knew if we got onto the social networking and all that, those folks would come out of the woodwork.”

Far beyond mere social networking, the Carson campaign mined lists of people who donated money to a group called American Legacy PAC, which earlier this decade used Carson as the face of its campaign against Obama’s health care overhaul.

Carson’s campaign also rented a supporter list from a super PAC created to draft Carson into a presidential run, most recently known as the 2016 Committee.

They were looking for people like Ruth Clark, 90, a retired teacher from Dubuque, Iowa, who in 2013 contributed money to a super PAC aimed at drafting Carson into a presidential run. She first heard of Carson about 20 years ago through her Methodist church library where she read his book, “Gifted Hands.”

Clark has now contributed $645 (in more than a dozen installments) to Carson’s presidential effort.

Fundraising Inc.

Some of the companies involved in building Carson’s presidential fundraising capacity have contributed to soaring Carson campaign expenses.

Watts said the campaign looked to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign outreach to small donors for inspiration, but couldn’t just rely on lower-cost digital efforts.

“We're Republicans,” he said. “We have a different marketplace.”

Key players in the campaign fundraising effort include Ken Dawson, the president of Eleventy Marketing Group, who is the campaign’s chief marketing officer. Eleventy Marketing also worked for American Legacy PAC.

The Carson campaign paid Eleventy Marketing $4.7 million during the first nine months of 2015 for database management services and other purposes, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Dawson said the company was responsible for the campaign’s initial online setup and its digital ads. He and Watts both said social media has been an important artery through which the campaign has reached supporters. Carson’s Facebook page is hovering on the verge of 5 million “likes,” and Dawson said Facebook has helped the campaign both attract contributions and add to its supporter list.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “Ultimately we’re turning those people into donors immediately.”

Infocision, an Akron, Ohio-based telemarketing firm that has come under heavy criticism for using aggressive tactics, is another.

The firm was American Legacy PAC’s biggest vendor in the 2014 election cycle and has so far received nearly $2 million from the Carson campaign. Carson himself visited the company’s office in Green, Ohio, in July.

Watts said the campaign used Infocision because it is one of the biggest companies in the industry. Asked about criticism that the company targets the elderly and has provided misleading information, he said, “I can tell you this: We go through their scripts every week, and we wouldn’t abide by that sort of thing.”

The company has up to 400 people making calls for the campaign on heavy nights, he said, which isn’t cheap.

Watts described the campaign’s contract with Infocision as one calling for “no net loss.” The purpose of the telemarketing, he said, is to build the campaign’s own list, so it can go back to contributors far more cheaply.

“We didn’t have Jeb Bush’s Rolodex,” he said of the former Florida governor-turned-presidential-candidate whose father and brother have already served as president.

Then there’s Mike Murray, the founder of American Legacy PAC, who’s now a senior adviser to the Carson campaign and oversees the campaign’s grassroots fundraising. Murray is also the president and chief executive officer of TMA Direct, a marketing firm.

The Carson campaign paid TMA Direct almost $2.7 million during the first nine months of 2015.

Watts, Giles and Bill Millis, a former Carson campaign national board member who has also been a supporter, donor and fundraiser, all said Murray deserves significant credit for the campaign’s fundraising success.

Murray said that while working with Carson on American Legacy PAC’s healthcare campaign, he saw how Carson connected with people. He also witnessed how the number of attendees at events featuring Carson far exceeded what anyone expected.

“It has to do with his tone, his biography, his respectability — all the things that make him what he is,” Murray said.

Murray, Watts, Giles and Millis all said fundraising costs should decline as a percentage of the total amount of money raised now that they can rely less on the most expensive supporter-prospecting methods like direct mail.

Millis, the campaign board member, said live fundraising events he’s helped organize have also yielded good money among motivated supporters. This autumn, for example, one in Charlotte, North Carolina, raised about $200,000, he said.

“I’ve never, ever been this involved,” Millis said in a mid-November interview.

But after Millis was interviewed for this story, he stepped down from the campaign’s board, citing differences over how the campaign was being run. It’s an indication that despite the Carson campaign’s fundraising success, the campaign is experiencing turbulence as the nation’s first presidential caucuses and primary contests near.

In an email to the Center for Public Integrity, Millis said he would continue to support Carson’s candidacy.

Giles, for his part, left the campaign in May and spent months working with super PACs supporting Carson’s bid, attempting to streamline their efforts.

He is no longer doing that. He disputes reports that he was pushed out of the campaign and said he is ready, after months of working in the political arena for no pay, to go back to his businesses and spend more time at home. He added that he told Carson to call him if the candidate needs anything.

Carson’s appeal to small donors

Some Carson admirers who’ve become contributors this year seem little concerned with any internal drama.

They remain drawn to Carson for a variety of reasons.

Some cite his faith-based worldview. Others are compelled by his political outsider status or distinguished medical career. Still others, like Anderson, the New Hampshire man who drove hours to catch a glimpse of Carson, are attracted to what they consider Carson’s personal integrity and independence from established political interests.

Take Kevin Amici, a project manager for a Las Vegas construction company, who said the only political contribution he’s ever made before this year was a small donation to Republican Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. Amici said he stumbled across information on Carson and said he was attracted to the candidate’s compelling life story and personal integrity.

During the first nine months of this year, Amici contributed about $900 to Carson’s campaign in more than three dozen separate contributions. The donations have ranged from $5 to $100, according to campaign finance records.

Amici says he responds whenever he can to emails and mailers from the campaign soliciting donations. He describes himself as “fully vested in Dr. Carson.”

Mary Pond, 93, of Palmdale, California, said she’s received solicitations from the campaigns of several Republican candidates, “but my money is going to Dr. Ben.”

She donates when she can after hearing from the Carson campaign by both email and postal mail. “They want a donation every day at least, but they do stress that even a small amount is beneficial. So that’s what I do,” said Pond, who's given several hundred dollars.

“He’s not coming from the jaded perspective of being influenced by so many political perspectives. He is a Christian like me,” said Alicen Twardosky, of Loudon, New Hampshire, an at-home mom who homeschools her children and says she’s contributed to the campaign, though not yet enough to cross the $200 threshold.

Robert Sweet, a retiree in Homosassa, Florida, said he hasn’t so much as voted since becoming a Christian more than three decades ago.

“I realized if I vote and the person who gets in there does evil, I am partly responsible for that evil, so I haven’t voted,” he said.

But Sweet says he’ll vote this general election — for Carson. He’s also doing more than that, so far giving Carson’s campaign $1,257 via multiple contributions.

Many of the Carson contributors interviewed for this article said they intend to keep sending small sums to the campaign whenever they are able.

Campaign finance reports show fewer than 100 donors have so far given the maximum $5,400 contribution allowed for the general and primary elections, so the campaign can continue to tap all the rest of their supporters for more money.

Courting billionaires

Carson’s political “Moneyball”-esque strategy does have its limitations, though, which the candidate himself is beginning to realize.

In order to prepare for what could be a protracted Republican primary fight lasting well into 2016, Carson’s campaign has begun the delicate process of also courting billionaires and establishment support. For instance, no less a mainstream Republican figure than Karl Rove has reportedly introduced Carson’s fundraisers to Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, a conservative mega-donor. Watts confirmed Carson has met with Wynn.

Carson’s appeal to the elites and establishment types risks alienating supporters who see his reliance on more common Americans as a selling point.

Watts said he expects any effort to court bigger donors will always take a backseat to grassroots efforts.

“We knew that in order for us to ever go around and start raising money from major donors we had to prove our viability, and numbers do prove your viability,” he said.

But when Carson met with some bigger donors early on, Watts said, he came back “and literally said, ‘I don’t want to lick anyone’s boots to do this and we seem to be doing just fine. Why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing?'"

Carson spoke carefully when asked whether he can continue to rely solely on grassroots.

“I love the idea that our campaign is powered by ‘we the people,’” he said after filing his ballot paperwork in New Hampshire.

“Have I spoken with some billionaires who were willing to give money? Absolutely,” Carson added. “But only if I would listen to what they had to say and maybe make some changes in the way I thought about things. I’m not willing to do that.”

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